Congress of South African Trade Unions

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Congress of South African Trade Unions

South Africa 1985


The early 1980s saw a wave of labor organization in South Africa. One result of this flurry of union activity was the creation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985. Between 1981 and 1985 a number of South African unions and federations negotiated to establish this national labor organization. Although the talks were often difficult and several groups withdrew, labor leaders did succeed in forming the sought-after national congress. In subsequent years COSATU played a major role in the South African labor movement, leading campaigns to raise wages and protest government policies that harm workers.


  • 1965: African Americans in the Watts section of Los Angeles riot for six days. Thirty-four people are killed, over 1,000 injured, and fires damage $175 million in property.
  • 1974: In a bout with George Foreman in Zaire, Muhammad Ali becomes only the second man in history (the first was Floyd Patterson) to regain the title of world heavy-weight champion.
  • 1979: More than a year after Afghan communists seized control of their nation, Afghanistan is in disarray, and at Christmas, Soviet tanks roll in to restore order, as they once did in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. This time, however, the task of suppressing the local populace will not prove so easy: little do the Soviets know that they are signing on for a decade-long war from which they will return in defeat.
  • 1982: Israeli troops invade Lebanon in an attack on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
  • 1985: A new era begins in the USSR as Chernenko dies and is replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev, who at 54 years old is the youngest Soviet leader in decades.
  • 1985: In a year of notable hijackings by Muslim and Arab terrorists, Shi'ites take a TWA airliner in June, Palestinians hijack the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in October, and fundamentalists take control of an Egyptian plane in Athens in November.
  • 1988: A terrorist bomb aboard a Pan Am 747 explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 people on the plane and 11 more on the ground.
  • 1990: Iraq invades Kuwait, seizing oil reserves, and the United States begins mobilizing for war.
  • 1995: The Aum Shinrikyo cult causes a nerve-gas attack in a Tokyo subway, killing eight people and injuring thousands more.
  • 2002: The Catholic Church is rocked by allegations of sexual molestation carried out by priests.

Event and Its Context

Four Years of Unity Talks

Between 1981 and 1985 South African labor leaders held union talks that resulted in the formation of COSATU. Despite the fact that there was much mistrust and conflict due to differences of interest, politics, organizational methods, and personality, talks began in earnest during August 1981, when more than 100 representatives from 29 unions met in Cape Town. The meeting was convened by the General Workers Union (GWU), and the country's major independent unions attended the meeting. These included the Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU), the African Food and Canning Workers Union (AFCWU), the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU) and the affiliates of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), and the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA).

An early test of labor unity came in 1982. When labor organizer Neil Aggett died while in police custody, union leaders called for a protest action. All union members were called to stop work for 30 minutes on 11 February. Some 100,000 workers participated in the protest. It was the first union-organized initiative since the 1950s that mobilized workers throughout the country over an issue not directly related to the workplace.

The second unity summit took place in April 1982. The main topic of discussion was the registration of unions with the government. The antiregistration faction warned that registered unions would be controlled by the government and would end up becoming reformist. The registration faction claimed to be aware of the dangers of co-option and argued in favor of taking advantage of the space opened up by workers' pressure on the state. Despite these disagreements, the labor leaders resolved to continue to work toward a union federation.

The third summit, held in July 1982 in Port Elizabeth, was the most bitter of all. The seven "community" unions put forward seven "non-negotiable" principles as the basis of the new federation. These were nonregistration, shop-floor bargaining, binding federation policy, worker control, nonracialism, participation in community issues, and the rejection of national and international reactionary bodies. Soon a deadlock developed, and it seemed no federation would be formed. However, some labor leaders continued to push for a federation, and a fourth summit to discuss the formation of such an organization convened in Cape Town. This meeting was well attended, drawing large worker delegations that discussed the steps needed to establish a federation. With one exception, the unions present agreed to participate in the formation of the new federation, and the delegates created a feasibility committee.

A number of problems nearly ended the talks once again. The unions were competing for membership, which sometimes led to accusations and resentment between various organizations. Also, FOSATU felt little pressure to form a new federation, as its affiliates had a rapidly growing membership and were benefiting from the well-organized federation. There was a feeling that unity talks were a waste of time and that those unions wanting unity should simply affiliate to FOSATU. In addition, some union leaders felt that the group of seven community unions were not truly committed to industrial unions.

Despite these problems, some of the union leaders decided to hold one additional meeting. Several unions left the unity talks at this point, but the process continued, and those remaining in the talks, representing about 300,000 workers, committed themselves to forming a new federation. The situation was made more difficult by the growing unrest in South Africa's Black townships. Union leaders and workers argued over how to respond to the increasing national crisis. Many participated in a two-day work stoppage, with some 800,000 workers taking part.

Meanwhile, the practical aspects of launching the federation were progressing smoothly and a draft constitution was circulated for discussion. Another meeting took place at Ipelegeng on 8-9 June 1985. Delegates discussed two main issues: the draft constitution, which proposed a tight federation, and the five unifying principles of nonracialism, one-union-one-industry, worker control, representation on the basis of paid-up membership, and national cooperation. The most hotly debated principle was nonracialism. The Ipelegeng meeting also separated out those unions wanting to be part of the launching congress and those wanting to stay out. There were still differences among the unions moving towards COSATU, but these and other issues were left unresolved, to be debated and ironed out within the new federation. During the final feasibility meeting, delegates discussed a name for the new federation, eventually deciding on the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

The Living-wage Campaign

After its establishment in 1985, COSATU undertook a number of major campaigns. One of COSATU's first activities was to launch the living-wage campaign. Beginning in 1986 the campaign's aim was to unite workers around a common set of demands and to coordinate their struggle to ensure success. Indeed, South African workers did achieve gains in terms of organization, wages, conditions, and benefits, with some of their demands for paid public holidays, education, and training becoming law.

Labor leaders at the first COSATU meeting adopted a resolution called the national minimum living-wage resolution that sought a national minimum living wage. Workers would decide exactly how much the minimum wage would be, and the amount should automatically increase when prices increased. It also included a demand that employers open their books so that workers could understand the profit system. This campaign strengthened COSATU's relationship with community organizations and certain political movements, as all were concerned with ensuring that South African workers and their families earned enough to live a decent life. For example, the campaign had great appeal to South African miners, who traditionally had earned very low wages.

COSATU formally launched the campaign in 1987. The campaign had several key demands, including a living wage for all workers, a 40-hour workweek, job security, six months maternity leave, and the right to decent education and training. In response, the South African government banned rallies and publications and raided labor offices, claiming that the campaign was a communist plot. At the same time, employers instituted lockouts and called in the security forces.

A long strike wave accompanied the living-wage campaign. A December 1986 wage strike continued into 1987. Then railroad and postal workers went on strike. Later in the year, mineworkers embarked on a massive national wage strike, called off after three weeks when employers began dismissing tens of thousands of workers. In subsequent years, the living-wage campaign continued, as COSATU unions extended their demands. South African labor leaders believe that the campaign remains relevant as they attempt to eliminate the wage gap between management and workers, men and women, and between skilled and unskilled workers.

The Campaign Against the Labor Relations Act

A second major COSATU campaign was its movement against the government's Labor Relations Act (LRA). The significant growth in numbers and strength of South Africa's labor unions in the early 1980s threatened apartheid's cheap labor system and the political control of the apartheid regime. In response to labor activities such as COSATU's living wage campaign, in September 1987 P. W. Botha's government amended the LRA. The amendments sought to weaken the growing union movement and undermine the gains made by restricting the right to strike, reversing the gains achieved by the unions, and curbing union activity by threatening punitive damages for strike actions.

COSATU reacted with a campaign to protest the changes. The anti-LRA campaign included lunchtime worker demonstrations, and because of restrictions on the right to protest, members spread their message on trains and buses. COSATU also lodged a formal complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO), thus making the issue an international one. When the government banned COSATU from engaging in any political activities, labor leaders convened a special congress in which they called for three days of national protest against the LRA. This led to a three-day national strike involving nearly three million workers. Employers retaliated by dismissing thousands of workers.

The government initially agreed to postpone the amendments and to negotiate with workers over specific issues. However, in September 1988 the government passed the Labor Relations Amendment Act (LRAA), and the amendments passed without any changes. The struggle continued, however, and in 1990 workers joined with certain business interests to demand changes from the government. In October 1990 the government signed a labor accord that reversed the 1988 amendments and set the stage for negotiations on basic rights for farm and domestic workers, an LRA for public sector workers, and a commitment from the government to consult labor and business on key issues concerning them.

Key Players

Barayi, Elijah (1930-1994): Barayi served as the first president of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). He had been involved in labor and social struggles since the 1950s as a member of the African National Congress. He later was a leader of the National Union of Mine-workers (NUM). He played a key role in the unity talks of the early 1980s that led to the creation of COSATU.

Mufamadi, Fholisani Sydney (1959-): Mufamadi was the first assistant general secretary of COSATU. He was active in the labor movement of the early 1980s in South Africa. He was then influential in organizing COSATU in 1985. After serving for 14 years as one of COSATU's leaders, Mufamadi became the South African minister for provincial affairs and constitutional development.

Naidoo, Jayaseelan (1954-): Starting in the 1970s, Naidoo worked as a teacher and activist in South Africa. In the late 1970s he began working as a union organizer for the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU). He played a key role in the 1985 establishment of COSATU and was elected its first secretary general, serving in that capacity until 1993. He then was elected to the South African Parliament, and in 1996 Naidoo was given the post of minister for posts, telecommunications, and broadcasting.



Beck, Roger. The History of South Africa. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood Press, 2000.

James, Wilmont G. Our Precious Metal: African Labour in South Africa's Gold Industry, 1970-1990. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1990.

Wilson, Francis. Labour in the South African Gold Mines,1911-1969. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1972.


Congress of South African Trade Unions Web site (cited 22November 2002). <>.

—Ronald Young

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Congress of South African Trade Unions